How it all began
It’s probably the gardener’s fault. If it weren’t for him, the club wouldn’t be where it is today. Truly, it wouldn’t be where it is today. I hope his tomatoes did well that year. He certainly deserved it, after everything he did for us.
It was 1976, the year the rowing club was born.
This is the story of how it happened.
A Boat on the River
The story begins in Minnesota, where I grew up and got hooked on rowing.
It was really an accident that it happened at all. I barely knew what it was at the time.
One day, during my junior year at the University of Minnesota, I was crossing the old bridge over the Mississippi River that connected the east and west banks of the campus. I looked over the railing and saw this amazing boat in the water, eight oars moving in symmetry, gliding down the river. As a Midwest kid from the suburbs, I really didn’t know what I was looking at, but it was beautiful and I had to find out what it was. So I biked down West River Parkway, hoping to catch up with it somewhere. By luck, I found an entrance to the Minneapolis Rowing Club. They invited me to try it out, and that’s how I got started.
I later learned that the Minneapolis club shared its boathouse and dock with the University of Minnesota Rowing Club. The university club had a space of its own, but it was pretty awful — an old quonset hut on a sandbar in the river near campus, a space that many generations of pigeons had shared with them. That was my first experience with a university rowing club.
I started rowing with the club in the spring of 1968, but I had to set it aside during my senior year. When I returned to the university for graduate work, I rowed with the club again for a few years, from roughly 1972 to 1974. Fortunately, our training was based out of the boathouse of the Minneapolis Rowing Club, not the old quonset hut.
I wasn’t a natural oarsman at first, except perhaps for my height. I had no real athletic background, having avoided team sports in high school, so the rigors of athletic training were new to me. I’d biked a lot as a kid, and that was the closest thing to a sport that I had. But I gradually got hooked on the unending challenge of perfecting my stroke, perfecting the swing of the boat, and that rare, wonderful feeling when everything came together and the boat flew across the water. I even got hooked on the crazy intensity and exhaustion of the power tens.
Practice started at 5:30 a.m., and I came to love the beauty and tranquility of being on the open water at that hour, gliding down the river gorge as the dawn penetrated the mist. Spring training began as soon as the ice floes moved down river, so it was often a little crisp out there, and we rowed with woolen caps and gloves.
Our coach, Charlie Good, liked to say that “rowing is a thinking man’s sport”. It took me a while to appreciate what he meant. Rowing requires intense mental focus on what you are doing, what the stroke oar is doing, what everyone in the boat is doing, stroke after stroke, even when your legs and lungs are burning from exhaustion. As a lifelong nerd, I was definitely a “thinking man,” but harnessing that in a physical team sport was a whole new experience for me.
Even though I was a graduate student, I rowed in the freshman boat. Things were a little loose in club sports, and that played to my advantage. I was a novice rower, so the freshman boat was definitely the best place for me. I settled into being a port oarsman, in the number 2 spot. I was a lanky oarsman with a slow natural cycle, but if I fell behind pace, I could rely on Bow to grind an oar in my back and keep me honest.
Rowing with the club in Minnesota, I also got some experience with competitive rowing. The club had a limited racing schedule, competing against other clubs in the Upper Midwest, like Nebraska, Kansas, and Wisconsin. We actually won a race or two, which was cool, but never against Wisconsin.
The Wisconsin team was in a totally different league — no quonset huts and pigeons, thank you. We went to a regatta in Madison one weekend, and we were the bug-eyed country bumpkins, looking at Wisconsin’s beautiful boathouse and their sleek fleet of new shells. It was a powerful image of what a rowing program could become, though I had no idea at the time what it took to get there. Clearly money was part of the equation, but what else?
All in all, my “rowing career” at the University of Minnesota wasn’t a long or conventional one, but it was enough to hook me hard. I loved the aesthetics of the sport, the mental and physical challenge, the endless pursuit of perfection, and being outside on the open water. I carried that memory with me when I moved to the University of Michigan in the fall of 1974.
A River Runs Through It
It’s hard to imagine now…
When I arrived in Ann Arbor in 1974, there was no rowing in town. No university club, no community clubs, no shells of any kind on the rivers and lakes in the area. Just the occasional canoe.
I was amazed. How could there be no rowing in a sports-crazy town like Ann Arbor? Other Big Ten campuses had rowing, why not the University of Michigan? It wasn’t for lack of good places to row. Ann Arbor was blessed with many lakes along the Huron River, which ran right through town. So where were the rowers?
I came to the university on a postdoctoral fellowship, and that kept me busy most of the time. But in my spare time I wanted to continue rowing, and it was frustrating that there was nothing in the area to participate in. Gallup Park was close to where I lived, so I’d often visit there to explore the river. I looked at the open waters of the Huron with a kind of nostalgia and homesickness, not sure what to do.
I finally decided the best solution was to buy a single shell, so I’d have something that I could row with on my own. After lots of research, I ordered a fiberglass shell from Baker & Swain in England in the fall of 1975. In December, it arrived at the shipping docks in Detroit, in an ungainly fiberglass box, 2’ x 2’ x 25’ long. Miraculously, it had survived all the forklifts along the way. But it was too late in the year to take it on the river, so I had to wait until spring.
I built some storage slings and a roof rack for my Opel Kadett, using wooden 2x4’s and carpet strips, so I could work on the shell and haul it around. I stored it in the yard of the house I was living in. I’d checked out some possible places to store it along the river, but nothing worked out. The Canoe Livery on Argo Pond wasn’t suitable for a shell of that size, and the sailing club on Barton Pond didn’t work out either.
A Crazy Idea
During January, while the Huron was locked in ice, I thought ahead to the time when I could finally get my new shell on the water. I was eager to try it out and be back in the game, but I also realized it wasn’t going to be enough for me. It wouldn’t provide what I missed most from my days in Minnesota — the companionship, challenge, and excitement of rowing in a boat as a team. I missed sweeps rowing, and a single wouldn’t be enough to fill that gap.
At some point during the winter, while my shell was buried under snow, I got the crazy idea of starting a rowing club on campus. I had no idea what that entailed, but it seemed like the only solution to my dilemma. Once it started, the idea wouldn’t let go.
If it doesn’t exist, create it.
By the time the ice on the river began to thaw, I was underway...
My first step was to find out how to create a new sports club at the University of Michigan. After poking around the Intramural Sports building one morning, I found the office of Rod Grambeau, the director of club sports in the Department of Intramural and Recreational Sports. I told him about my interest in starting a rowing club on campus, my experience with rowing at the University of Minnesota, and my desire to start something similar at Michigan.
Mr. Grambeau was very supportive of the idea. The rowing club would begin as a recreational club, alongside the other 27 sports clubs on campus, and it would also provide an opportunity to compete with other university clubs in the region. Like the other sports clubs on campus, it would be co-educational (both men and women).
He suggested that I start by promoting the idea on campus to find out the level of interest. That was a smart idea on his part, because at that point he was looking a club of one, and he really needed to see more. We agreed that the interest was probably out there, given the size and depth of the student body at Michigan, but it was important for us to find out. He offered his office’s bulletin board and staff as a contact point for students to register their interest in the club.
He also let me know that it was important to register the club formally as a student organization, so my next stop was the office of the Michigan Student Association in the Michigan Union. I started the paperwork needed to get the club set up through the student government, and later opened a checking account for the club through the same office.
Starting From Zero
In late February 1976, I began to advertise and promote the idea of a rowing club on campus. I needed to find out whether anyone else on campus was interested, and if so, to find some people to work with to make it happen.
At the time, the tools for advertising on campus were very different. There were no social media to spread the word and generate interest, no email, no websites, no cellphones. The best way to advertise a new idea was to post notices on bulletin boards. So I printed up dozens of flyers about the rowing club (PDF), and I posted them on as many bulletin boards as I could find — in dorms, cafes, and outdoor kiosks all over campus.
I invited interested people to sign up on the bulletin board in the IM building, to call the office there, or to send me a note by mail. I was overwhelmed by the level of interest. More than 100 people responded to the flyer, expressing their interest in the club. Many of them had rowed in high school or college before coming to Ann Arbor, and they were eager to participate again. So there clearly was enough interest to get started.
Finding the Core
I invited everyone to come to an organizational meeting in the auditorium of the Perry Building, on the evening of March 23, 1976. The response was amazing — more than 50 people showed up for the meeting, both men and women. There was a lot of interest and excitement since many of them had rowed in the past, and they were eager to be rowing again.
But the excitement began to cool as the reality sank in. How many boats did I have? Where was my boathouse? The answer to all of this, of course, was that we had nothing, no boathouse, no boats, no trailers, no oars. We were starting from scratch.
Understandably, that’s not the answer many people wanted to hear. They just wanted to row, and they were disappointed that I had “nothing to offer.” Many stayed on to offer suggestions, while others left in disappointment, and the meeting got progressively smaller.
By the end of the evening, I found myself with a core group of 6-8 people who were not only interested in rowing, but were willing to work to make it happen. They became the nucleus of the new club. They were undeterred by reality. They knew we had no equipment, no boathouse, no money, and they wanted to help.
That initial group of supporters was crucial for getting the club off the ground. I can’t thank them enough for their support and for sharing the conviction that we could create a rowing club starting from zero.
Over the next few months, the core group of club members were:
Mark Doman — graduate student in engineering; strong rowing background from his undergrad days at Cornell
Mike Weisman — undergrad; had some prior rowing experience at the University of Washington; became the club’s first president
George Lawrence — undergrad; brought some Australian flair to the team
Paul Blostein — undergrad; helped with ideas and logistics
Paul Borondy — worked at Parke-Davis; had rowed in his younger days in Hungary; provided guidance and direction as we formed the new club; became the first vice president of the club
Bob Verbrugge — postdoc; prior rowing experience at the University of Minnesota
Two other early supporters also deserve mention — Charlotte Crane, who had rowed with Radcliffe in the early 1970s, and Peter Darrow, who was a member of the Barton Boat Club. Both offered strong encouragement and helpful ideas as the club got started, but neither was able to participate actively that spring.
The Work Begins
The next few months, from March through June, were a busy and turbulent time for the new team. We met and talked frequently, sharing ideas about how to solve our basic start-up problems — finding equipment, storage space, and money. We worked on all of the problems at the same time, often facing one kind of Catch-22 or another — shopping for boats when we had no money, asking for money when we had no boats, buying boats when we had no place to put them.
We just forged ahead, not knowing how the problems would get solved, but sharing the conviction that we would work something out. That confidence opened doors, and over time, we began to find solutions to each of problems we faced as a new club.
A Sculler on the Huron
During the same period of time, I also began trying out my new single. I had my first outing in late March, shortly after the club’s first meeting. I drove to Gallup Park and launched from the public access area on the north shore of Geddes Pond. It was a choppy, overcast day, and it was definitely an adventure. I had no experience or training with sculling at the University of Minnesota, just sweeps rowing, so the whole business of coordinating two oars, maneuvering a turn, and balancing on my own was a completely new experience.
As I launched from the shore, a good-hearted person “helped” push me off, and I instantly flipped into the cold water. Undeterred (and little crazy), I pushed off again and paddled around until hypothermia set in. It wasn’t pretty. I spent most of the time wobbling and struggling for balance, but it was a good start.
Things got better over time, as I got more experience and learned how to recover from the occasional flips. I got more adventurous in my outings, exploring all the lakes and waterways in the area. People were curious about the strange craft, since many had never seen anything like it before.
For a few months, I was the lone sculler on the Huron River. But that changed by June, as our new club gradually found what we needed to start sweeps rowing on the Huron...
To find second-hand equipment, we had to look outside Ann Arbor, since there were no clubs in town. During our organizational meeting, people had offered several suggestions of clubs in the area that we could contact for help (Detroit, Ecorse, Windsor, Wyandotte), so we started with those. We were open to any kind of arrangement – borrowing, leasing, purchasing, or donation. A lot of our time in April was devoted to finding some boats and oars for the club to get started with.
The other clubs in the area were very supportive of our efforts to start a club at Michigan. Rowing is an extended family, and the family welcomes new members. But most of the clubs in the area (both community-based and college-based) were struggling to survive, and they couldn’t part with any of their equipment. Our first positive nibbles came from the Windsor Boat Club and the Detroit Boat Club, both of which thought they might be able to sell us some old equipment.
In early May, we completed a deal with the Windsor Boat Club to buy a few of their second-hand boats — an old Sims 8 in pretty good condition, a rowable Sims 4, and an old Pocock 4 in bad shape. The Windsor club was generous with their price — only $100 for all three boats. That fit our budget, so we were underway.
Clubs were generally more protective about their oars, so it took a little more effort to find some. Eventually we struck a deal with Michigan State University, who sold us a dozen old oars for a song ($50 or so). MSU had recently bought out some old equipment from a military academy, so they had some to spare. The oars were pretty chewed up (no clean set of four among them), but it was a start.
While we searched for used equipment, we also began pricing out the cost of new equipment, both boats and oars. In late March, shortly after our first meeting, I sent out a letter of request to boatbuilder (PDF) in the U.S., Canada, and Europe, asking for current price lists and other details. I used stationery from the IM department, which gave our little club a nice patina of legitimacy.
In addition to generating lots of information about boats we couldn’t afford, the mailing had an unexpected benefit. The U.S. sales agent for Collar oars was W. Hart Perry, Jr., at Kent College in Connecticut. As it happened, Mr. Perry was also President of the National Association of Amateur Oarsmen (NAAO), now USRowing, and in his reply (PDF) he offered his support and encouragement for our new club.
Mr. Perry put me in touch with Allen Rosenberg, National Technical Advisor of the NAAO, and later with Peter Zandbergen, a Director of the NAAO, who had run the rowing program at the University of Nebraska and was familiar with the Midwest rowing scene. These contacts were helpful in giving us some visibility at the national level, and I wrote them periodically to keep them updated on our progress.
The national organization wasn’t in a position to provide us with any start-up funds, but their advice and encouragement was helpful. Mr. Zandbergen offered detailed advice about how to handle some of the challenges we faced in areas like organization, fund-raising, equipment purchasing, and public relations. The involvement of the national organization in our work helped give us more legitimacy on campus.
We began shopping for equipment without any money in our pockets, which was fun, but it was obvious that we would eventually need some cash. That was our second priority during April, and we had remarkably good success. Our initial funds came from three sources: the IM department, the student association, and club membership fees.
I met with Rod Grambeau again after the club’s first organizational meeting. He was impressed by the large showing of interest on campus. He agreed that the absence of a rowing club was a big gap in the university’s family of recreational sports clubs. I asked him if he could help us with some start-up funds, and in April, he generously made some funds available to us (about $300 as I recall). Given his annual budget for all of the 27 sports clubs was only a few thousand dollars, that was truly generous. (In general, the sports clubs on campus were managed and funded by students, with little or no support from the IM department.) The funds went into a new rowing club account in the IM department.
I also made a pitch to the student government for start-up funds for the club, not really expecting anything to come of it. To my amazement, they gave us $325 to help us get started. That was the first deposit into our student organization account.
We also pursued funds through the Alumni Office, the University Development Council, and some local businesses, but it was difficult to sell the idea because there was no tradition of rowing in the area, and as yet, no visible activity.
The start-up funds from the IM department and from the student association made a huge difference in helping us get the club off the ground, especially in making our first purchases of equipment. I’m grateful to both organizations for extending their trust at such an early stage, when we barely had anything to show for ourselves.
Beyond those two donations, we knew we would need a more regular source of funds for the club, so we decided to set up a membership structure and charge an annual membership fee. In late April, Mike Weisman and I mailed a solicitation letter (PDF) to everyone who had expressed interest in the club, inviting them to become members. We summarized the club’s plans and progress to-date, and we invited everyone to participate, whether they were able to contribute financially or not.
The mass mailing went out the old-fashioned way. I typed up the letter on my manual typewriter (no laptops or email in those days), had copies printed at the local Speed-a-Print shop, and mailed the letters at the local post office. We had a pretty good response to the mailing, and that gave us a little more money to work with.
After landing the deal for our first equipment, we realized we had to get serious about finding a place to store it — and fast. Windsor was eager to have us pick up their scrap lumber, and we had no place to put it.
We were open to some kind of temporary storage away from the water, but that was far from ideal. I was able to car-top my single and store it at home. But that kind of thing doesn’t work when you need to move a four or an eight every time you get together for practice. At best, off-water storage would be a place to work on the boats while we looked for a better home.
Clearly our best option for storage would be something close to the water, somewhere along the Huron River. Also, ideally, we needed a storage space where we’d have some shelter from the elements. We could store the boats outside on slings, if necessary, and row from there. But wood is not a friend of wind and rain. We knew we were starting with boats that would need repairs, and for repair work, we really needed a more sheltered space.
We’d been doing some research on options for land and buildings, thinking ahead to the possibility of leasing some land and putting up a boathouse. I spent some time looking at town and county records, researching land ownership along the Huron. Other members of the team starting pricing out buildings and found that the cheapest metal building (30’x70’) would cost more than $11,000 for materials and construction. That was way beyond what we could afford.
I’d been exploring the various lakes along the Huron in my shell, and I was coming to the conclusion that our best bet for temporary storage was probably somewhere along Argo Pond. The other lakes along the Huron were a longer shot. Barton Pond was rimmed with private property, including a sailing club that wasn’t really suitable or receptive at the time. I’d checked out the old Edison Power Station at the foot of Barton Pond, and the design didn’t suit our needs. Geddes Pond had some nice water, but it was part of a heavily-used public park, and use of the park for storage would require township approval. Ford Lake seemed a bit far afield, and access was limited. So we decided to focus our initial search on Argo Pond.
Argo had some nice straight-aways, and it was less developed, more private, than the other lakes. The shores on both sides were overgrown, and I liked the natural beauty of it. It could be a magical place, like the gorge of the Mississippi River that I remembered from my days at Minnesota. Ownership of the Argo shoreline was still a bit of a mystery, but it was time to start exploring.
A Place to Call Home
One Saturday afternoon in May, we piled into a car and began exploring along the western shore of Argo Pond. The area was only lightly developed at the time, and there wasn’t much there. We started at the northern end, near Barton Pond, driving into any parking lot or back lane we could find. It was one dead-end after another — just a few small industrial buildings, a railway line, and nothing that got us close to the water.
After a lot of getting nowhere, we drove down a little gravel road that took us over the railroad tracks. The road turned left and went a little ways north through the woods. To our right, we could see the river. The road opened onto a large clearing, and on the far side we saw an odd assemblage of old storage buildings, small offices, oil tanks, containers, and dumpsters.
The place was dead, except there was a gardener out front, on his hands and knees, planting tomatoes. We told him what we were looking for, and I asked him if there was somebody we could talk to.
He wasn’t what he appeared. He wasn’t the gardener, he was the president of the company, and he was very interested in what we were trying to accomplish. His name was Howard (“Dutch”) Voorhees.
Mr. Voorhees told us that he’d been a student at M.I.T., and he was familiar with rowing from watching it on the Charles River, though he’d never done it himself. Part of his current business was renting storage space for large pieces of equipment that were subject to ongoing litigation or used for industrial strength testing. He had some space that wasn’t being used at the time, and he offered to rent it to us on a temporary basis to store our boats. The warehouse was 70’ deep, perfect for our needs.
In short order, we worked out a rental deal and some conditions. The monthly rental would be $60 — well below market value, I’m sure, but within our meager means — and the rent would be waived for the first few months. Our pledge as renters was to steer clear of everything else that was stored in the building, and to lock the door securely when we left.
We were a little giddy as we drove back down the gravel road that afternoon. We couldn’t believe our luck. We had stumbled onto a near-perfect solution — a secure place, sheltered from the elements, big enough for our boats, and close to the water. And we’d found a private property owner who couldn’t have been more supportive.
The gods of rowing had blessed us with a miracle.
What we didn’t know, of course, was how things would evolve from there. And we certainly didn’t have a plan for the future. A plan?! We were just happy to find a short-term fix for our immediate storage needs, while we looked for a more permanent home.
A Working Boathouse
Shortly after we found our storage space, we arranged a rendezvous with the Windsor Boat Club to pick up the three boats that we’d purchased from them. We borrowed a university station wagon with a trailer hitch and drove to a nearby regatta, where we met up with the Windsor team. We borrowed their trailer to take the boats back to our new warehouse space on Argo Pond.
For the first time we had a chance to see what we’d bought. They were older wooden boats, heavier than the newer boats of the day, with their share of cracks, missing parts, and rigger damage, but they would certainly be rowable after repairs. The Sims 4 was in the best condition, rowable with only minor repairs, while the Sims 8 would require more work. The old Pocock 4 was in pretty bad shape, and would require more major repairs. But it was all a great start, and given the price, it was a generous gift from the Windsor club to help us get started.
We set up the boats on sawhorses and slings, and started the process of cleaning them, repairing them, and attaching the riggers. As I recall, Mark had some experience with boat repairs, so he led that part of the effort. We were eager to get at least one of the boats patched and ready, so that we could test it on the water and maybe take it for a row (if it didn’t sink first).
The First Launch
Our little club was still a bit fragile at that stage, but the pieces were starting to come together — a few boats, a place to store them, a place to launch them, a little money, and a few dedicated guys.
It was time to do what we’d come to do — hit the water!
On June 15, we met at the warehouse to take the Sims 4 out for a row on the river. Without a real boathouse or dock, everything was a bit improvised. The warehouse had a high loading dock, designed for truck deliveries, so it took a few guys at the top and and few at the bottom to move the boat out into the parking lot. From there, we walked the boat to the river.
The shoreline was undeveloped at the time, overgrown with shrubs and trees, with a rocky drop to the water. We found an opening in the trees, put a couple guys in the water and a couple on shore, passed the boat carefully into the water, and then followed with the oars.
It was a blustery day, so we had to protect the shell from being blown against the rocks. After a cameo shot for posterity (see below), we climbed into the boat and took it out for a row. We were pleased to find that it was watertight and set up well (no serious leaks or twists).
It was great to be out on the water again. Sweeps rowing in Ann Arbor had begun!
Epilogue: A Temporary Home
As often happens in life, “temporary” solutions have a way of becoming permanent. The club is still in the same place we stumbled onto that afternoon in 1976, at the end of the gravel road that goes up and over the tracks. It became the club’s permanent home.
The area evolved over time, of course, and it looks very different now. There is a large boathouse at the edge of the parking lot, the shoreline has been cleared, and a large dock provides access to the river. But progress came slowly, and the first few years were very different.
In the spring of 1979, the lease expired for the warehouse space, and the owners weren’t interested in renewing it, so arrangements had to be made to store the boats outside nearby. That was hardly ideal, and the equipment suffered some serious wind damage on occasion, especially during a storm in April of that year. Outdoor storage remained the club’s only option for several years, even as the fleet of equipment and the level of activity grew dramatically.
By the spring of 1982, the club had grown to over 70 active members, with men’s and women’s teams of approximately equal size. The club owned four rowable eights, three fours, a pair-with, two Pocock singles, two coaches’ launches and motors, and four sets of sweep oars. But it still had no indoor space to store its boats and equipment during the rowing season.
For several years, the rowing team and its new parent organization, the Michigan Rowing Association (MRA), founded in 1982, put in considerable effort to finding a more permanent site to store the boats and build a boathouse. An agreement to use some land adjacent to the sailing club on Barton Pond eventually fell through, and efforts to secure a public site below Barton Dam were also unsuccessful.
Eventually, the MRA developed an arrangement to lease some land near the old warehouse along Argo Pond, where the club had been operating from the very beginning. The MRA raised money to build a boathouse on the site, designed for shared use by the university team and other clubs and individuals in town. The new boathouse (a 42’ x 80’ polebarn) was erected in early 1985, and Ann Arbor rowers finally had a secure and protected place to store their shells and other equipment.
But even then, the club continued to think of it as a temporary solution. In the MRA newsletter of December 1984, announcing the new boathouse, Lisa MacFarlane noted that “we have picked a design than can be easily either sold or transported when we move to our permanent location.”
Today, more than 30 years later, the men’s rowing team is still operating out of the same “temporary” location.
(More details on the first 20 years of the University of Michigan Rowing Club can be found in a compilation of stories, Michigan Crew: The First Twenty Years, ed. Gregg Hartsuff.)
[Robert Verbrugge is proud to be a founding member of the University of Michigan Rowing Club. He can be reached at email@example.com.]